Ministerial Code: Independent Investigation of Alleged Breaches

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:15 pm on 24th January 2017.

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Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker 1:15 pm, 24th January 2017

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I beg to move

That this Assembly acknowledges that it is in the public interest for there to be openness, transparency and accountability in relation to the Northern Ireland Executive; recognises the important role that the Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards plays in providing independent investigation of alleged breaches of the Assembly's Code of Conduct by Back-Bench Members; further recognises that the current lack of independent scrutiny of Executive Ministers benefits neither the public nor the Ministers themselves; and calls on the Executive Office to bring forward urgently legislation to expand the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards to allow him to investigate alleged breaches of the ministerial code of conduct.

We need an independent, open and transparent process for investigating Ministers. I have always failed to understand the opposition to that from some in the House. Given recent events, if the Assembly was to oppose it again today, there would be public anger. We have institutions that are at the point of collapse because we have had, by necessity, trial by media of the former First Minister. It was by necessity because there was no formal process for the allegations against the then First Minister to be heard. This will be the last decision made by this Assembly. I call on Members not to waste the opportunity to send a clear signal on the standards of accountability that we expect of the next Executive.

MLAs are rightly expected to adhere to the Assembly code of conduct: the Green Party asks no more and no less of Ministers. If an MLA is alleged to have breached the code, a member of the public can write to the standards commissioner and have their complaint investigated in an independent manner. The result of any investigation is published and can, if required, lead to a debate in the Assembly so that all the issues can be aired. The process is open, transparent and just. No such process exists for Ministers. If a member of the public wishes to complain about a Minister, the only avenue open to them is to write to the party leader. As we have seen on many occasions in Northern Ireland politics, leaders protect their Ministers; indeed, when the complaint is about the leader, the leader protects herself.

In 2014-15, the majority of the complaints received by the Commissioner for Standards were against Ministers. They were deemed inadmissible because his current powers do not allow him to investigate alleged breaches of the ministerial code of conduct or alleged breaches in which an MLA is deemed to be acting solely in their role as Minister. I am pleased that the commissioner has confirmed to me his support for an expansion of his role so that he can investigate alleged breaches of the ministerial code of conduct.

I would argue that it serves neither the Minister nor the public well that we do not have such a process. An individual who seeks to complain will be left frustrated if they feel that their concerns are ignored by those in office, who are supposed to act on their behalf. Having written to a party leader, an individual may feel that that leader is acting in the interests of their party colleague rather than in the interests of good governance.

Equally, Ministers who face allegations will most likely hear them debated through the press in what I have referred to as "trial by media". The press have a job — holding Ministers to account — and have shown that they are well capable of doing it. Nonetheless, the recent RHI debacle has highlighted the need for a better process. Whilst we may disagree on the various issues — indeed, we had a six-hour debate about them yesterday — I do not think that any of us would disagree that there has to be a more dignified way of managing such complaints. The processes, in my view, are currently lacking.

For another example, I go back to 2011, when I accused the then Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, Arlene Foster, of breaching the code by failing to declare that her husband owned land in an area that she licensed for fracking. Interestingly, she argued that it was not her who licensed the land; it was her Department. To this day, I maintain that she was in breach of 1.5 (ix) of the code of conduct, which provides that any Minister must:

"declare any personal or business interests which may conflict with their responsibilities."

Arlene Foster, of course, denied that the code was breached. We have never concluded the issue because there was no process through which to do so.

I raised this issue through questions for oral answer a number of times since May. On each occasion, by chance it was the deputy First Minister who answered, and he seemed to have some sympathy with the proposal. I took the opportunity that he offered to meet with him to discuss the matter, and he confirmed that it was a meeting with the joint office. Again, the deputy First Minister seemed sympathetic to my proposals. One of his concerns was that I seemed to be the only one pushing for this; whilst he could see the argument, he did not feel that there was enough of a drive to support the proposal. He also asked, quite legitimately, what sanctions would be in place should a Minister be found to have breached the code of conduct.

As I mentioned, the Commissioner for Standards supports this. When we debated it back in October, in relation to an amendment that I tabled to a motion, all the non-Executive parties supported it. I put that to the deputy First Minister in writing. There are a number of options available for sanctions similar to those for breaches of the Members' code of conduct. A Minister could be required to apologise. They could be censured by the Assembly, suspended or, in the most extreme cases, expelled from their role as Minister.

Unfortunately, due to the illness and now retirement of the deputy First Minister, we did not get to conclude our conversations, and I wait to hear whether Sinn Féin will support my proposal today. Equally, while I was told that my meeting was with Mr McGuinness in his capacity as deputy First Minister and with the consent of the First Minister, I do not yet know the views of the DUP and whether they have changed since October, when it and Sinn Féin opposed this proposal.

I maintain that we need an open, transparent and accountable Government. As I said, this is the last decision of this Assembly. Let us not waste it. Let us begin the process of restoring some confidence in politics in the eyes of our public.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin 1:45 pm, 24th January 2017

I thank the Members for bringing the motion forward. I have no difficulty supporting it and the sentiments within it. Sinn Féin is in favour of openness, transparency, the accountability of the Assembly and the accountability of the Executive and Ministers. Ministers, as with other Members, should be required to act to the highest possible standards. We need adequate procedures to make sure that is the case. Ministers must also act in the public interest. The ministerial code of conduct states, among other things, that Ministers must:

"observe the highest standards of propriety and regularity involving impartiality, integrity and objectivity in relationship to the stewardship of public funds ... operate in a way conducive to promoting good community relations and equality of treatment ... not use information gained in the course of their service for personal gain; nor seek to use the opportunity of public service to promote their private interests".

Obviously, it says more than that, but I chose to read those paragraphs out because I think the public will be surprised to hear that is how all Ministers are supposed to behave and make decisions, given all that has happened over the last couple of months with regard to some DUP Ministers.

I am stating the obvious when I say that public confidence in these institutions has diminished in recent times. The key reason for that is that the public do not agree that certain DUP Ministers and certain decisions they have taken have abided by the sentiments that I just read out. Leaving aside Red Sky and the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), purely because of time constraints —

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome that you have responded to Mr Agnew's question about whether you will support his proposal. How do you reconcile what you are saying now and your commitment to the motion with the way you voted less than 18 months ago, when the exact same proposal came before the Assembly and Sinn Féin and the DUP opposed it? Will you explain why you have changed your mind — I anticipate why — and why you opposed this very proposal less than 18 months ago?

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I note that the proposer said he had ongoing discussions with the deputy First Minister, from my party, who said in the Chamber that we were open to the discussion of this motion no less than a few months ago. I will come to the more important reasons and the revelations that have been made recently.

Leaving aside Red Sky and NAMA, recent decisions by, in particular, the Minister for Communities, Paul Givan, on the allocation of funds to marching bands, the community halls fund and the removal of funding to Líofa were nothing short of disgraceful and indefensible. They showed a total lack of balance, transparency and attempt to promote good community relations or equality of treatment.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Member criticises funding for community halls and the lack of balance. Does he include in that the halls attached to, for example, the Ancient Order of Hibernians?

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

The Member knows as well as I do that, if he looked through the list of those that received money from the halls fund, he would see it was obviously imbalanced towards one section of the community in a great way over and above the other section.

As I said, those decisions were disgraceful and indefensible. They show a lack of balance and transparency and of any attempt to promote good community relations or equality of treatment. I could not tell you how many people have stopped me in the street prior to and after Christmas to ask how Paul Givan and the DUP could get away with the decisions they are making. Any one of those issues was serious enough, but the three coming in close succession displayed for everyone to see that he has no concern for the ministerial code of conduct. They are examples of a blatant sectarian distribution of funds by the DUP. Indeed, the nature and tone of his letter withdrawing the Líofa funding on the day before Christmas Eve was bad-mannered in the extreme and unbecoming of anyone taking on the role of Minister in this institution.

Add to that the recent revelations about the renewable heating incentive (RHI) scheme, which was set up and designed by a DUP Minister and overseen by DUP Ministers. There are allegations that DUP advisers delayed the closure of the scheme, which has the potential to cost the ratepayers and taxpayers of the North up to £500 million. Those allegations, which continue to grow daily, are further examples of the need to ensure that Ministers, in conducting their business and making their decisions, are held to account by proper procedures.

I welcome the inquiry to be set up by Máirtín Ó Muilleoir to deal with the issues around the RHI scandal and get to the bottom of it. That scandal is a clear and obvious example of why the work of Ministers needs to meet the highest standard. There has been arrogance, stubbornness and disrespect to Members, the general public and public finances recently from DUP Ministers. That is not how Ministers should conduct their business.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker

I ask Members to take their ease while we prepare for Question Time, after which the next Member called to speak will be Pam Cameron. Pam, I apologise, because I should have called you first. That was a bit of a slip on my part, but you will maybe forgive me for that this time.

The debate stood suspended.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Kennedy] in the Chair)